Global Ocean Fish Populations Could Double While Providing More Food and Income

New Research Shows 77% of World’s Fisheries Can Be Healthy in a Decade

March 28, 2016
Matt Smelser, (202) 572-3272,

(WASHINGTON – March 28, 2016) Groundbreaking research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the majority of the world’s wild fisheries could be at healthy levels in just 10 years, and that global fish populations could double by 2050 with better fishing approaches compared to business as usual. The peer-reviewed study is authored by researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara, The University of Washington and Environmental Defense Fund.

In addition to recovering fish populations, the newly published paper shows that by 2050 the world’s fisheries could produce more seafood and increase profits for fishermen by 204 percent versus business as usual. The increased harvest would be enough to provide a significant source of protein for an additional half a billion people. With a projected 9.5 billion people competing for more food from maxed out resources in the coming decades, finding sustainable ways to increase food production has become critical. 

“This research shows that we really can have our fish and eat them too,” said Chris Costello, the paper’s lead author and a professor of environmental and resource economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “We no longer need to see ocean fisheries as a series of trade-offs. In fact we show that we can have more fish in the water, more food on the plate, and more prosperous fishing communities—and it can happen relatively quickly.” 

According to the paper, if reforms were implemented today, three-quarters of exploited fisheries worldwide could attain population goals within ten years, and 98% by mid-century. These powerful conclusions emerged from an analysis using a massive database of 4,713 fisheries that represent 78 percent of the ocean’s catch. That’s far more precise and granular than previous analyses.

“We’ve uncovered a really important insight: there is urgency and tremendous upside in reforming thousands of small-scale, community fisheries around the world,” said Ray Hilborn, a co-author and professor of marine biology and fisheries science at the University of Washington. “The research adds to the body of work that shows that most of the world’s large fisheries are doing relatively well, but it emphasizes the critical need to rebuild local fisheries that millions of fishermen and their families depend on for food and livelihoods, most of which are in the developing world.”

The research suggests that implementing reforms, like secure fishing rights, are critical to providing the combined benefits of increased fish populations, profits and food production. Fishing rights is a fishery management approach that ends the desperate race for fish by asking fishermen and women to adhere to strict, science-based catch limits in exchange for a right to a share of the catch or to a traditional fishing area.

“We now have a clear roadmap for how to recover fisheries: give fishermen secure fishing rights so they can control and protect their future,” said Amanda Leland, a co-author of the paper and senior vice president for oceans at Environmental Defense Fund. “Countries from the U.S. to Belize to Namibia are leading a turnaround by implementing secure fishing rights and realizing benefits for people and the oceans.”

In United States federal waters, since 2000, overfishing has dropped 70% as the number of species managed with fishing rights or “catch shares” has quadrupled. In the past three years fishing industry jobs have increased 31 percent and fishermen revenues by 44 percent. In Belize, the government has just begun to implement a fishing rights program for their small-scale fishermen, that has dramatically increased compliance and shown tremendous potential to recover important local species.

“Our research reveals a stark choice: manage fisheries sustainably and realize the tremendous potential of the world’s oceans, or allow status quo to continue to draw down the natural capital of our oceans,” said Costello.

You can read the research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here.

The study’s co-authors are: 

Christopher Costello¹, Daniel Ovando¹,  Tyler Clavelle¹, C. Kent Strauss², Ray Hilborn³, Michael C. Melnychuk³, Trevor A. Branch³, Steven D. Gaines¹, Cody S. Szuwalski¹, Reniel B. Cabral¹, Douglas N. Rader²,  Amanda Leland²

¹University of California at Santa Barbara; ²Environmental Defense Fund; ³The University of Washington

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